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RIP Influential Film Critic Andrew Sarris (Revisit His ‘Mildly Unpleasant Encounter’ w/ Spike Lee + Black Cinema Thoughts)

RIP Influential Film Critic Andrew Sarris (Revisit His 'Mildly Unpleasant Encounter' w/ Spike Lee + Black Cinema Thoughts)

I was on a program one time with Spike Lee, and we got into it. I said he has a problem. Very often right in the middle of a movie he’s making he tries to make an aesthetic statement. There’s a kind of pretentiousness in what he does sometimes. I think the best film by an African-American director… is Carl Franklin. I thought One False Move was one of the best movies by an African-American director. Singleton is interesting. Years ago, when the first Shaft movies came out and the Superfly movies came out, I was very much for them, because I felt that this was a possibility for the African-Americans to take over… and then the African-American intellectuals came out against these movies… And I thought that that was a mistake. So consequently what you have now is all these excellent African-American actors playing second banana to the white action heroes… I think Spike Lee is in a unique position. He’s become an official spokesman, and he has a political significance. He is important. His first movie was quite fantastic. I think personally he’s a better actor then he is a director. I think he’s a very good actor, a very interesting actor, and I wish he’d do more acting then directing. That’s just my opinion.

Andrew Sarris on Spike Lee (and black cinema in general) in a 2010 conversation (along with his wife Molly Haskell) at Sacred Heart University titled Taking Film Seriously:A Conversation withAndrew Sarris and Molly Haskell.

You can read a transcript of the entire conversation HERE if interested; it’s about 27 pages long, so grab a seat and a drink.

According to the New York Times, Andrew Sarris, one of the most influential film critics ever, and a champion of auteur theory (often seen as a professional rival to Pauline Kael, who had originally attacked the auteur theory), died this morning in New York City. Complications from a fall were the reasons given for his death.

He was 83 years old.

I tried to find some notable link between Sarris and anything “black cinema” related, and in reading his review of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), the penultimate paragraph of that review contained the following sentence (suffice it to say he didn’t care for the film):

In the name of critical integrity, I suppose I am honor-bound to reveal that, years ago, I had a mildly unpleasant encounter with Mr. Lee on Ted Koppel’s Nightline. Yet nothing would make me happier than to have Mr. Lee prove that I was wrong on that occasion, by making a film with less aesthetic and thematic confusion than is to be found in Bamboozled.

It’s thanks to that portion of his review that I naturally did some digging, trying to locate a video archive of that “encounter” on Nightline – a trail I followed until I found the above Sacred Heart University conversation that I quoted from.

No luck on finding a video recording of it online however; not even a transcript of their conversation! Maybe someone else will have more success in digging it up. 

What I can tell you is that the 30-minute episode of Nightline aired in June 1991, right around the theatrical opening of Spike’s Jungle Fever; the entire episode was dedicated to a discussion on “black filmmakers and their relationship to the motion picture industry“, with live guest on set that included (in addition to Spike and Sarris), Ossie Davis. There were also pre-taped segments with film historian Donald Bogle, Melvin Van Peebles, Matty Rich, John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles, and others.

I did find one article in the Sun Sentinel from that same month in 1991, that said it was a missed opportunity on Koppel’s part to, stating that Koppel had an agenda, “as proven by his first question to Lee: ‘In films directed by whites, which ones had credible portrayals of black characters?’

The Sun Sentinel article continued further…

Without a beat, Lee answered, “Nothing But a Man, Soldier`s Story and Sounder.“ The eloquent Davis put a historical perspective on blacks in film. Sarris, who is white, gave a lukewarm response to the efforts of black filmmakers. Then Lee was asked by Koppel whether he would ever abandon black characters to do a film with an all-white cast. A clearly steamed Lee seemed to do all he could to contain himself and say that he saw no reason to abandon the course he has taken so far. Koppel, tenacious as a pit bull, wouldn`t give up his pursuit. He did not ask the most talented director of his generation, regardless of color, about the themes of these new films by young black filmmakers, or whether the access to the business would continue, or any one of a dozen salient topics related to the show`s theme. Instead, the host wanted to know whether Malcolm X, Lee`s soon-to-be-made film about the controversial black leader, could be directed by a white person. Lee said “no.“ So did Davis. Even Sarris said that a white person`s view of Malcolm X wouldn`t measure it, adding, “No one else but Spike Lee should make this movie.“

You can read the rest of the piece HERE

I’d love to watch that entire episode of Nightline, if anyone can get their hands on it; not only for Sarris and Lee, but the rest of it sounds like a piece of TV history that demands to be seen, given the intellectual and artistic minds involved.

RIP Mr Sarris.

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